Rand's theory of morality is the best refuted of her theories. Since there's been much wrangling about her theory in a previous post, I thought it might be helpful to reexamine Rand's arguments and point out what's wrong with them. Rand actually presents several arguments, each devoted to a specific problem. These can be summarized as follows:
(1) "Objective" and "rational" argument for why man needs a code of values based on reason;
(2) Argument for why life is the "ultimate" value and the standard by which all goals are evaluated;
(3) Argument for how happiness is achieved.
The term "argument" is here used rather loosely. Rand offers no clear-cut, formal argument for the last two positions, merely a few vague and rather puzzling hints. Let's start with the first one for why man needs a code of values based on reason. It could be summarized as follows:
(P1) Man is a living organism that faces the fundamental alternative of life and death
(P2) Life requires a specific course of action to sustain itself
(P3) Because of the need for unit-economy, the course of action required to sustain man's life must be reduced to a series of intelligible principles
(P4) Reason is the only means of figuring out the series of principles required to sustains man's life
(C) Man needs a code of values based on reason
Now I have given Rand a little help here. She does not explicitly mention the last two premises, but they are clearly things she presupposes and explicitly endorsed in other places. I will leave the logical analysis of this argument to others. I simply note that, while the first two premises are largely true (indeed, the second is a truism), the last two are dubious. A much more plausible theory states that ethical theories depend, at least in part, on tacit knowledge that cannot be adequately articulated in explicit principles. (See Hayek or M. Polanyi.) Philosophers who reduce morality to a handful of consciously articulated principles end up with ethical maxims that are too broad and leave way too much wiggle room for casuistry.
The fourth premises presents particularly serious difficulties, because it's not clear what "reason" is. If we define it analytically (i.e., as that which is required to find out the principles needed to sustain life), then the statement assumes the very point at issue. If we define it as a process whereby, through observation and "induction," one creates premises and then uses logic to deduce conclusions from those premises, then the proposition is empirically false: that view of knowledge acquisition, originally formulated by Aristotle and the scholastics, is wrong. Cognitive scientists have found no evidence that knowledge works that way, and a great deal of evidence that it works in other ways (i.e., largely through a loose kind of analogical reasoning combined with trial and error testing).
Note how the first two premises, which are the most plausible and easy to defend, are the only ones Rand explicitly enunciates. This is a common trick of rationalizing philosophers: The rationalizer parades the obvious, as if the argument depends only on that, when, in reality, it also depends on dubious presuppositions that are never acknowledged or explicitly stated.
I will examine the other arguments in later posts.